Which Violin Wood sounds the best-European? Chinese?

Can you tell how a violin will sound just by looking at it? Maybe. What if you knew what wood it was made from? If it had a European spruce top, would it be a better sounding violin? What about Chinese violins which use Chinese wood? Can they sound as good as European violins? If you have wondered about these things please read on and explore with me how the wood used to make a violin can definitely guarantee a better sound. I will begin by outlining the three components which combine to make a great sounding violin:

Firstly, the WOOD that is used according to some violinmakers, is the most important reason for good sound, all other things being equal (which they never are).

Secondly, there is the CRAFTSMANSHIP of the violin maker, which in the opinion of others is the most important ingredient. One violin-maker, even claims that he can make a good sounding violin from any sample of spruce and maple. I have read enough of other violin-makers opinions to know that this statement is not true. Wood is just as important as the skill of the maker.

Thirdly, all violins require a SET-UP involving positioning the sound-post inside the violin, the shaping of a bridge and nut to the correct height, width and fit on the body.

In this article I am only talking about the wood that is used, and I plan to talk about the making and set-up of violins in future posts.

Regarding the WOOD used it is useful to know that the TOP of the violin is made from SPRUCE and is called the belly or the sound board. The BACK, the sides and the neck of the violin are made from MAPLE. The most important part of the violin for sound is undoubtedly, the spruce top or belly of the violin which is called the soundboard. The maple used elsewhere does effect the sound also, but in a complementary way.

Stradivari was very particular which individual spruce tree his spruce top came from. In his day, in the 17th century, all the finest violin makers like Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri etc. from Cremona (Italy) used spruce trees cut in the European alps and rafted to Venice and then brought to Cremona. This spruce is a specific species called picea abies. When and from where the tree was cut was very important. “WHEN it was cut down was very important! It had to be cut down within the last quarter of waning moon (end of waning moon phase) in the wintertime after the growing period of the tree has stopped” and the sap flow was low (www.best-eurospruce.com/3.html). Because of this it was called moon-spruce. WHERE it was felled was very important also: 1. the spruce had to come from was the European Alps which is shared by Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria;” 2. The tree had to face “the northwest slope of a mountain in altitudes from 1000 meter/3500 feet up to the limit of vegetation!” Here is an example of this:

Here are some more guidelines:

– the age of the tree effects the sound as more mature trees have a greater flexibility and resonance. You can tell the age of the tree by the close grain throughout the top. If the grain changes from close grain to wide grain, it is probably a younger tree. A mature trees can be as old as 300 years to achieve this consistent closeness of the grain width!

Below is a picture a good close grained top:

The picture below shows close grain in the centre but it the width of the grain varies significantly towards the edge:

– the spruce needs to have close, clearly visible grain lines which indicates that the spruce came from a high altitude where there is not much growth in the wood from year to year. This is why the grain is closer together. Trees from a higher altitude are stronger and more flexible when bent. As a result, the wood will return to its original shape when flexed due to its slow growth resulting in the close grain. The sound will therefore be more resonant due to the wood’s springiness.

– European tonewood is often thought to produce a better sounding violin. This is often true but not just because the wood is better, it is also because it costs more to buy so greater care is taken in the making of the violin and the setting up of the soundpost, bridge and strings. So, some spruce from the mountains in China can produce a good sounding violin if the spruce tree is at high altitude with slow growth and close grain! However, it is very unlikely to be the correct species of spruce so the sound will be different to the classic violin sound. There are at least 11 species of Spruce in China from which violins could be made and none of them are “picea abies”: (info from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spruce )

– spruce must be aged (let lie after felling) for 15-20 years before it is used to make a violin (not artificially dried in a kiln). However, most if not all beginner violins are made with wood that is not aged. Why aren’t all violins made from aged wood? Unfortunately, demand is outstripping supply, so many violin-makers in China are using wood from trees that are not even aged one year after being felled. The violins will look the same but the sound will be very different. With wood that is not aged, there will be a tight sound which lacks resonance and harmonics. Instead there is a harshness or squeakiness to the sound. I have found this to be true in the last few years as the sound quality of beginner violins has fallen dramatically. I am told that new wood will produce a sour smell, but the varnish can have such a strong smell that it is hard to smell the wood.

In conclusion, great care must be taken to obtain the best wood to make a musical instrument as demanding as a violin. In reality, however, when purchasing a violin we have no idea when the wood was cut or where exactly in Europe or China it comes from. The only way we can tell the altitude is by the closeness of the grain. The correct species of spruce is called “picea abies” which comes from Europe. The 0ther 34 species of spruce are probably used in most of the violins which are made in mass quantity today. So the sound will be different to the classic violin sound.

For those who are interested in more information about what spruce trees produce the best tonewood for violins please read the following information found at http://www.best-eurospruce.com/4.html

“Carpenters and luthiers had recognized that wood that was cut under certain conditions, differs from wood that is not cut using the old traditional rules: 

  • The best trees grow on the northwest slope of a mountain on altitudes from 1000 meter/3500 feet up to the limit of vegetation.
  • The best trees measure ca. 50 centimetres/ 20+ inch diameter and is around 300 years old due to its slow growth at high altitudes (that’s when a tree hits it’s peak).
    At these altitudes a tree grows around 1 millimetre/ 0.4 inch each year in radius = distance from the grain lines. Using a little mathematics it comes out to ca. 20 grain lines/inch.
  • Cut down within the last quarter of waning moon (end of waning moon phase) in the wintertime after the growing period of the tree has stopped (low sap flow). For this reason the spruce is called “moonspruce.”
  • Let this tree lie as it is in the forest for stabilization – including it’s branches and bark – until a first step of drying is done by nature and the cut tree tries to start to grow again after the end of wintertime (this is nowadays no more possible due to bark beetle plague).
  • Then bring it down to the mill, get split logs out of it and cut these into tonewood. Air-dry the milling results.” 

Regarding this traditional method the old violin masters like Stradivarius etc. said that moonwood has several advantages to non-moonwood. This wood is more resistant against moister changes and it is stiffer: some analysis say that it seems to be ca. 15% denser than a comparable piece of non-moonwood and it feels like long-time stored wood that has reached a stable state. According to some luthiers, a 1-year-stored moonwood top feels and compares to a 15-year-stored non-moonwood.

Violins as Carry-on Luggage aboard Airplanes

Can we carry our Violins with us inside the Airplane as Carry-On Luggage?

Answer: It depends on which country and which airline. In the E.C. as well as most of the world it is airline specific.

Before we start let’s ask ourselves “how big is a violin and how big is a violin case?”

The full-sized VIOLIN itself is 59-60cm in length, while the VIOLIN CASES can vary from around 61cm (without bow) to 80cm. Viola’s can vary even more depending on the size of the viola!

AIRLINES: Some airlines like Ireland’s Ryanair only allow the maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. This is really small as just the violin itself is 59-60cm long! There is no way you could bring your violin on board unless you cut off the peg box!

Qantas are more accommodating allowing L81cm x H30cm x D19cm for Music instruments as inflight hand baggage. This means your violin case at 80cm length can be allowed as carry-on baggage.

COUNTRIES: In the U.S.A., there is now a nation wide policy because of legislation which was just passed in their Senate on February 6th, 2012. For more information I have included excerpts from the following article at http://www.violinist.com

U.S. Congress says instruments will be allowed as airplane carry-ons!

News: Good news for those of us who travel with our instruments.

From Laurie Niles (from http://www.violinist.com)
Posted February 9, 2012 at 03:33 AM

The new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just passed by the U.S. Congress allows instruments as carry-on luggage.  The FAA reauthorization was passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, February 3 by a 248-169 vote.

Here are excerpts from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) press release: The AFM applauds the passage of the FAA Bill that sets a consistent national policy allowing musical instruments on airplanes.

Congress has passed legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the next four years. Included in the bill are provisions that create a uniform national policy regarding musical instruments on airplanes. Any instrument that can be safely stored in the overhead compartment or underneath the seat may be brought on board as carry-on luggage. Additionally, the bill sets standard weight and size requirements for checked instruments, and permits musicians to purchase a seat for oversized instruments, such as cellos, that are too delicate to be checked. Existing law allowed each airline to set their own policy regarding musical instruments, and size requirements varied widely for both carry-on and checked baggage. “This is great news for professional musicians throughout the U.S. and Canada who carry the tools of our trade – our instruments – aboard commercial aircraft,” said AFM President Ray Hair. “Ending the confusion over musical instruments as carry-on baggage has been a top legislative priority for nearly a decade.”

WHY YOU DON’T WANT TO CHECK YOUR MUSICAL INSTRUMENT INTO THE BAGGAGE COMPARTMENT: sometimes luggage is tossed and roughly handled which is demonstrated in the picture below. This is not a real event, but it is a remake of an event which resulted in the breaking of the guitar of the singer Dave Carroll. For the song you can go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo&feature=player_embedded#!

Violin Sizes – how much to pay – 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 7/8, 4/4

HOW BIG ARE THEY AND HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY? I’ll answer the first part and then talk about the second part later so please read on:

1. JUST HOW BIG ARE THEY? Just like shoe sizes, we can buy different sized violins for all ages. Below is the actual length in Inches and Millimetres.

Violins come in the following sizes and total length:

1/16 – 37cm (14.5″); 1/10 – 41cm (16″);    1/8 – 44cm (17.5″); 1/4 – 48cm (19″);

1/2 – 52cm (20.5″);   3/4 – 55cm (21.5″); 7/8 – 57cm (22.5″); 4/4 – 59cm (23.5″).

MV100-small

The smallest is the 1/16th size violin which is used for a 3-4yr old. The biggest is a 4/4 size which is also called a full-sized violin. As you can see, violins are in “fractional” sizes because of the use of fractions.

This can be misleading though, as a 1/2 size violin (52cm) is not a 1/2 of the size of a 4/4 (59cm) or full-size violin.

 

 

 

 

2. HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY?

This is a great question. I have searched on the internet for different opinions to give a balanced answer. Here is what I found:

PARENT No.1: “So, onto violins. Small violins seem to me to be “sound impaired” no matter what brand you buy. So, as long as the instrument is set up well, does it really matter about the “quality” of said instrument? Right now I can buy any number of 1/4 violins off e-bay for under $100, including a Strunal 220 that seems to get reasonable reviews from reputable sources. So, again, how much does “quality” matter when we are talking about a small instrument that a child will outgrow?”

MY RESPONSE:  Quality does matter a lot even though a child does possibly outgrow the violin in a year. The difference in sound can be described as the difference of sounding like heaven to sounding like hell. Poor sounding violins can sound horrid, horrible, abysmal etc. As a teacher, I just can’t listen to a poor instrument as it effects the child more than you think. Most often, the child will just stop practicing as they don’t enjoy the sound. Recently, I even gave one of my young students a free instrument loan because their instrument was very poor sounding.

PARENT No.2: “I spent the last 6 months looking for a 1/2 size violin for my son. I looked through the internet, went to a couple of violin shops. My son wanted a brand new one. We tried three that he liked. One was Wilhelm Klier which he liked best of the three until his violin teacher contacted a local luthier and brought an old violin which is probably 75 – 100 years old. It looks really beat up, but the sound was no comparison. Even with a fractional size, it sounded so mature and the high register sounded very clean. He just fell in love with it despite its appearance. The Wilhelm Klier outfit was $1500 (which is still a very good violin) and this old one was $750. You might want to check local violin shops and try to find an old one. A lot of times, not always, the older the violin, the better the sound it will produce. I think it is so important that a violin has the capability to produce beautiful sound from the beginning of your son’s violin study. You might be able to find a reasonably priced one if you take your time.” 

MY RESPONSE:  This parent is absolutely right in everything he/she said. It has been my experience also that: “A lot of times, not always, the older the violin, the better the sound it will produce.” For this reason I have made a great effort to find and sell 100 year old fractional violins. Why do they sound better? The main reason is due to the 50-100 year age of the wood in antique violins. By comparison, the majority of new violins are only aged a few years, so the sound is not as resonant. Old fractional violins are quite rare but surprisingly they are as affordable as comparable quality new violins. However, not all old violins sound the same, so I price them accordingly. New violins also vary quite a lot in their sound, which is why I personally select all the new violins that I sell.

A VIOLINMAKER’S OPINION: “Because (as stated above) fractional instruments are transitional, over spending does not make sense in my opinion.  We have carried many different 1/2 sized instruments at different price ranges in our shop and have decided that our higher end 1/2 sized instruments should fall in the $750 to $1,250 range with 3/4 going a bit higher.  This range allows a significant improvement over your current violin without breaking the bank.”

MY CONCLUSION: There is a big difference in sound between the beginners’ violin and the mid-range violin even on fractional violins. The beginners’ violin that I sell costs $150 and it sounds better than other similarly priced violins-believe me I have tried them all. The mid-ranged violin costs $320 and has a superior sound. Because it is a better sounding and better looking violin it has a resale value so it can be used as a trade in on the next mid-ranged violin. This more than justifies getting the mid-ranged violin. Of course, if you are not sure whether the child will continue to learn then start with a beginners’ violin first.

Another reason why the sound of the violin is important is that it will encourage the student to practice and progress faster. Considering the major investment of money in regular lessons (approx. S$1,400), then the cost of the violin is considerably less.

Hope this has been helpful.

BUYING a VIOLIN in Sydney

BUYING a VIOLIN in Sydney:

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Buying a VIOLIN can be an expensive affair. Of course, you want to have the best sounding violin for your money. However, it is difficult to know if you are really getting your money’s worth or over paying. 

HOW CAN I HELP? As a teacher, I have been helping students to get the best sounding violin for their money. started to purchase violins for my students as I was not I can help you to get the best sounding violin to suit your budget.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY?
For the beginners violins $290-$390, I select the best sounding violins so you may not need to pay more to get a good sounding violin.
For ADVANCED violins, YOU SHOULD PAY A LOT LESS than the retail price as Strings2u prices are around HALF THE PRICE. This is because I do not have to cost in the overheads such as rental and staff salaries.
Buying from Strings2u situated at Chisholm St Wolli Creek Sydney, YOU SHOULD PAY A LOT LESS than the retail price for the ADVANCED violins. My prices are around HALF THE PRICE. This is because I do not have to cost in the overheads like a retail shop, such as rental and staff salaries.
Also, as a violin teacher I have selected the best sounding BEGINNER ($290) and INTERMEDIATE ($400-$500) violins for students, and set them up to sound their best.
 
TO SEE PHOTOS and DETAILED DESCRIPTION of the violins please click “New Violins” or “Antique Violins.”
 
BEGINNER’S VIOLIN: If you are just a beginner then I can supply you with a New Beginner’s Violin which costs ONLY $290-$390 (which includes the violin, the case, the bow and resin).
Once your boy/girl reaches 1/2 size and completes Book 1, then you can consider buying an intermediate violin. By then he/she will have enough skills to harness the qualities of a better violin.

INTERMEDIATE to ADVANCED Violin – beyond Book 1: A student is ready for an intermediate violin when they progress beyond Book 1. They will benefit from having a better sounding violin.

Intermediate to Advanced Violins are available as follows:
Chinese handmade Violins: 1/2, 3/4 and 4/4 or full-sized.
Antique Violins: 7/8 and 4/4 or full-sized (1/2 & 3/4 are very rare)
 
What’s the difference? The new Chinese Violins have a brighter sound while the antique violins have a warmer sound due to their age. In price there is not a significant difference. Both New and Antique Violins range from $590-$2190 and above.

What Size Violin Do I Need? – Fitting the violin by arm length

THERE ARE TWO METHODS OF DETERMINING WHAT SIZE VIOLIN YOU OR YOUR CHILD NEED:

METHOD 1:

A. MEASURE YOURSELF: Measure in inches, the length between your neck and the middle of your left-hand palm (when your arm is fully extended just like holding a violin).

B. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SIZE VIOLIN: Match the Violin Size given below with the measurement you have just taken. If your measurement is in between sizes, get the Violin Size that is below your measurement.
Violin Size – Arm Length in inches:
4/4 – 23 inches
3/4 – 22”
1/2 – 20”
1/4 – 18 ½”
1/8 – 16 ½”
1/10 – 15”
1/16 – 14”

METHOD 2:

If you don’t have a tape measure, there is a fast way to check:
A. Hold the violin in playing position on your left shoulder (preferably using a shoulder rest).
B. Extend your left arm further and with your left hand try to wrap your fingers all the way around the SCROLL (see diagram – wrap your fingers around the curled, round piece of wood at the end of the neck).

C. If you can see your finger nails wrapping around the scroll, then the violin is the right size and not too big for you. However, if you can wrap the fingers around without needing to straighten your elbow and arm, then the violin is too small for you and you need to try the next size.

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Avoiding Climate Damage to your Violin

HEAT DAMAGE: Many years ago in Kuala Lumpur I left my beloved “Didion” violin in the boot of the car when I went from the Music School to a party. The problem was, I forgot all about it till I remembered around noon time the next day. Kuala Lumpur can be extremely hot and that day was. When I opened the case I was horrified to find that not only had all the strings come loose but the whole top of the violin had come off as the hyde glue had melted. Actually, if the glue had not come unstuck then the wood would certainly have cracked which thankfully it hadn’t. This is why repairs need to be done only with animal hyde glue and never with other glues. So I sent my violin off to London with a friend to have the top reglued.

At that time, I didn’t have my equipment to do the repairs myself. So what is the lesson that I learnt? NEVER, ever, put your violin in the BOOT of a car. Why? You might forget all about it like I did, and melt the glue. I recommend that you always take the violin with you when you leave the car in case someone breaks in and steals it. While we are on this subject, its also important not to put the violin near an airconditioner, a heat source, or an exterior wall. This will avoid extremes of temperature. 

ABOUT VIOLIN DAMAGE: LOW HUMIDITY causes CRACKSIn America this is a real problem as their humidity can be as low as 10-15%. So if you are traveling to a cold country you will need an HUMIDIFIER in your violin case. This contains moisture like a sponge and releases the moisture to humidify the air.

HIGH HUMIDITY causes WEAK SOUND: In Singapore, we don’t have the problem of low humidity and cracks, however, we do have the problem of high humidity causing weak tone. The solution is DEHUMIDIFIERS. Fortunately, if you leave your violin in a room that regularly has airconditioning, this problem is solved. An air conditioner dehumidifiers the air.

TYPES HUMIDIFIERS: There are two types of humidifiers: 1. those that go in the INSTRUMENT (e.g. “Dampit”  from $7.50 to $10 each) and 2. those that go in the CASE. Cases often come with both an hygrometer which measures the level of humidity and an humidifier which corrects dryness. An in-case humidifier often comes in the form of a small tube filled with water-saturated material that releases moisture at a controlled rate. For those with a D.I.Y. aptitude, you can insert several holes in a small plastic canister and insert a sponge inside which you will need to keep moist. This can be mounted inside the case with Velcro.

DEHUMIDIFIERS: For those who live in humid climates around the equator, you will need a DEHUMIDIFIER in the case. These usually consist of silicon gell or silicon pellet packets which absorb the moisture from the air in the case. They need to be placed in the microwave occasionally to remove the moisture that has been absorbed. 

(Reference: Strings magazine, October 2002, No. 105. “Drying Times – How to protect your instrument from climate changes” by Richard Ward)

More than just a bow

10 WAYS TO JUDGE THE QUALITY OF A BOW – or How do I know if my bow is any good?

Let me just start by stating the obvious. It is the bow which produces the sound on the violin. Obviously, not all bows are created equal. I continue to be surprised how using a different bow can make the same violin sound either incredibly better or much worse. You can get your perfect sounding violin without upgrading your violin by just upgrading your bow.

10 WAYS TO DESCRIBE A GOOD BOW:

SOUND: strong core, a lot of high overtones, a strong middle range

VOLUME: loud, low, focused, good carrying power

WEIGHT: light (ideally around 60 grams)

BALANCE: good balance not heavy at the tip or the frog

STRING CONTACT: even over the whole bow, including the tip, in the middle and the frog

BOUNCE: good over the whole bow, with good control

STABILITY: is stable along the whole stick, not breaking out to the side in the middle

STIFFNESS of wood: good, stiff at the frog, middle and tip

AESTHETICS: nice tip, frog, beautiful wood, mother of pearl, gold , silver, nickel mounted

FEEL: is comfortable in your hands.

Most professional violinists will have more than one bow in their case. One bow will be for medium tempo and the other lighter bow for faster tempo. It is important to mention that professional bows are made of pernambuco wood.

In the bow-making business it is usual to refer to some species other than Paubrasilia echinata as “Brazilwood”; examples include Pink Ipê (Handroanthus impetiginosus), Massaranduba (Manilkara bidentata) and Palo Brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto). The highly prized Paubrasilia echinata is usually called “Pernambuco wood” in this particular context.

Reference: These tips come Chapter 11 of “A Bow on the Couch” found at https://www.andreasgrutter.com/a-bow-on-the-couch/

COURSE: CLASSICAL VIOLIN

COURSES:

CHILDREN BEGINNERS LEVEL-: Fiddletime Joggers Beginners Book is used as it has a easy to learn fun approach using different musical styles and an accompaniment CD. It starts with 10 pieces for open string melodies then 10 pieces for 1st finger, 10 pieces for 2 finger and 14 pieces for 3rd and 4th finger. This can be completed in 6-12 months.

CHILDREN INTERMEDIATE LEVEL: I use three books for this level:

Bk 1. Fiddletime Runners Book is used as it has MANY MUSICAL STYLES including CLASSICAL VIOLIN. This is followed by Fiddletime Sprinters

Bk2. Fiddletime Scales Books 1 & 2 are introduced for scales and arpeggios.

Bk 3. Suzuki Violin Book 1 is started at this level and continued through to Bk 10. 

A.B.R.S.M. Grade 1 through to Grade 8 books are used for those who request exams.

ADULTS: a combination of pop/american folk/Irish fiddle music and Suzuki Method -music reading is not a requirement unless requested. Adults can also request A.B.R.S.M. examinations if they are interested.

COURSE: CLASSICAL VIOLIN
GRADING SYSTEMS:
Associate Board of Royal School of Music (A.B.R.S.M.) Examination and Certification
OR
Trinity College of London Examination and Certification

AVERAGE TIME PERIOD NEEDED:
Beginner-first 6 months THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 1 and SUZUKI Bk1 & Fiddletime Joggers    – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 2 and SUZUKI Bk1 & Fiddletime Runners  – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 3 and SUZUKI Bk2 & Fiddletime Sprinters – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 4 and SUZUKI Bk3 – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 5 and SUZUKI Bk4 – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 6 and SUZUKI Bk5 – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 7 and SUZUKI Bk6 – 1 year THEN
A.B.R.S.M. Grade 8 and SUZUKI Bk7 – 1 year THEN SUZUKI Bk8 etc.

***N.B. Where progress is accelerated it is possible to complete two Grades in one year. Examination is optional.

COURSE CONTENTS:
MUSIC LISTENING
TECHNIQUE
PERFORMANCE
MUSIC READING: this begins even with 4 yr old children.
MUSIC THEORY
REPERTOIRE: Classical, Pop, Latin, Folk including American and Irish Fiddle, etc.